John McIntyre

For potty mouths

If you are of delicate sensibilities, you do not want to be in the newsroom of a daily newspaper on deadline, because the swearing then and there is heartfelt, vocal, and repetitious.* But journalists have a complicated relationship with bad words, decorum requiring us in text to resort to "the f-word," "the n-word," initial letters with hyphens or dashes or asterisks, "[expletive deleted]," or the vague but ominous "a racial slur."
But journalists' complicated relationship with taboo words mirrors a larger cultural phenomenon, which Melissa Mohr describes thorooughly and thoughtfully in Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (Oxford University Press, 336 pages, $24.95). In brief, we need swearing as a means of expressing strong emotion and achieving a brief catharsis, and only strong language, taboo language, is adequate for the purpose. "Language is a toolbox and swearing is a hammer," she writes.
Ms. Mohr begins her history way back, with the Romans, giving you the opportunity to discover what the bad words are in Latin. (Futuo is Latin's f-word, as graffiti preserved on the walls of Pompeii's lupanar, brothel, indicate.) And she is instructive about what swearing indicates about the differences in mores between Roman culture and ours.
What preoccupied Christian Europe in the Middle Ages was the oath, literal swearing, in part because of the belief that words hold power, to invoke the divine or encroach on its territory. "Unlike administering or receiving Communion, swearing was not a class prerogative. It threatened to disrupt the carefully maintained Eucharistic hierarchy of power by allowing anyone and everyone access to God's body--anyone that is, who could put together the talismanic words."
But as the Age of Faith faded, blasphemy gave way to other words thought to have power, the words of sexual activity and body functions. "Obscenities took the place of vain oaths to become our swearwords--words that shock, that offend, and that express strong emotion, positive or negative. But, in a limited way, obscene words also assumed oaths' privileged relation to facts--they became the words that a man (especially a man) used when he wanted to tell the truth. As God's body receded from contact, the human body supplied its lack as a generator of taboos and as a guarantor of the truth."
The march of decorum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries repressed swearing, which, of course, gave it even more power until the great loosening-up of the mid- and late twentieth century. If you drive around in summertime with the windows open, you can hear other automobiles emitting language more shocking that the words that got Lenny Bruce arrested in the 1960s.
And there Ms. Mohr identifies what appears to be a pending shift. As the sex-and-body-function swearing becomes more commonplace, it dilutes its impact. She suggests that the racial and ethnic terms that are our current taboos may be supplanting words like the f-word that have been rubbed smooth by overuse.
Not that there is much to be done about that, even if we could. She writes, "Eradicating the words with which we express hatred will not get rid of the emotion itself, producing some conflict-free, if not socialist, utopia. A world without swearing would not be a world without aggression, hate, or conflict, but a world bereft of a key means of defusing these emotions, of working them out. Swearing is an important safety valve, allowing people to express negative emotions without resorting to physical violence."
So, let fly.
*Well, maybe not in the newsroom of the Christian Science Monitor.